The martial arts can be divided roughly into two groups: empty-hand arts and weapons arts. There is endless argument within each group about which particular empty-hand or weapon skill is superior (i.e. pummeling vs. grappling or sticks vs. blades). But there is a general agreement among martial artists that a person with a weapon, regardless of the type of weapon, has a definite advantage over a person without one.
Weapons are better than the empty hands for one reason: the ease with which they can hurt another person. In kickboxing matches and bare-knuckle karate tournaments, it often takes a long time for one competitor to knock out another. In many of these fights, both opponents are left standing at the end, and judges must determine the winner. Even no-rules grappling matches often go for 30 minutes or longer before one man triumphs over his opponent.
With a stick, knife or gun, however, you can hurt someone worse than you can with your bare hands — and in a shorter time.
The effect of the use of weapons on the development of the martial arts cannot be overstated. The ability to hurt and kill quickly and easily changed the way ancient masters looked at the world. They needed to make life-and-death decisions in the blink of an eye.
One slash of a samurai sword or one slice from a poisoned kris knife could mean instant death. Ancient masters became spiritual people because they had no choice: They needed some type of heightened awareness to survive in their chosen profession.
The heightened awareness of the ancient masters usually came from the practice of meditation or some kind of ritual trance. These methods of altering consciousness were learned from priests or shamans. This is the origin of the influence of Asian religious traditions on the martial arts.
The warrior needed an altered state of consciousness to see and react properly to an attack with a blade or other weapon. He needed to judge where a cut or stab was going and react with his own cut almost simultaneously. In other words, the swordsman or knife fighter didn't react (act after) his opponent's strike; he acted at virtually the same time as his opponent struck. That's what is meant by the phrase "becoming one with your enemy."
The priest or shaman was important to the warrior for another reason, too. Having strong religious beliefs lent reason to the warrior's actions. Knowing that what he was doing was right took away the doubt that causes hesitation. Remember that one slip could mean the end of a swordsman. The warrior in ancient times needed the context of firm religious beliefs to keep his conscience clear and himself alive.
The presence of meditation traditions in empty-hand martial arts is a carry-over from the weapons arts. The empty hand simply is not as dangerous as a stick or sword. In fact, many ancient masters taught empty-hand skills (along with meditation) first and weapons skills second because the empty hand is less dangerous.
That way, it was easier to contain a student who turned on his master. Then and now, a student with empty-hand skills is no match for a master of weapons skills. As Niccolo Machiavelli wrote, "Between an armed man and an unarmed man, there is no comparison."
Today, we live in a much safer world. Most of us live a relatively quiet and uneventful life. There are no duels of honor with swords or knives. We have no practical reason to seek the altered consciousness of the ancient masters. For this reason, the traditional martial arts seem like hopeless anachronisms. But there is something present that is not easily dismissed.
By learning the exact movements of ancient warriors, we gain an insight into a way of thinking that is obscured by the comfort of modern life. No one can truly know what it's like to fight a life-and-death battle unless he has done so.
We can only taste what it's like to be a warrior through kata (forms) practice and sport-fighting competitions. Even in these distilled forms, we can still experience the great mystery of the ancient masters — the quiet mind from which their great skill came.
Story by Keith Vargo
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The 21st century is rife with technology. The newest software and latest gadgets surround us. However, as we stare at the seemingly endless number of progress wheels spinning throughout our day, we may wonder if modern ways and technology make life any easier. It is refreshing to know that martial arts are still proving that the old ways have much to teach us about life and ourselves. One of the oldest arts, Kendo, teaches combat with a sword, but it also teaches much more.
Enter 6th Dan, Kendoist, Andy Fisher. Andy was kind enough to share his experience as a Kendoka, of almost 20 years, and answer some questions about why there is still much to be gained by learning the Japanese art of Kendo, the way of the sword.
What made you begin studying Kendo?
When I was 19 years old a friend of mine gifted me a Shinai (bamboo sword). I was fascinated by it. I returned home, switched on my computer and dial-up modem, found the nearest Kendo club, and signed up for the beginner's course!
How long have you been studying and teaching Kendo?
I've been studying Kendo since 2002. I started teaching basics to beginners after I got my 1st Dan, which was in late 2003. After moving to Japan in 2009, I returned to being a full-time 'student' of Kendo. In 2015 when my eldest daughter started Kendo, shortly after I got my 5th Dan, I started becoming more involved in children's Kendo in Japan, and in 2016 I was made an official teacher at the Dojo where we practiced.
What do you think is the most important thing to consider when beginning Kendo?
When starting out, it is best to approach it with an open mind. It is likely very different from what you may be expecting – it certainly was for me – but it still has much to offer, many things that you don't even realize you are looking for, until you find them in Kendo.
What do you think makes Kendo a great art to study?
In Kendo, physical strength and athleticism provide little to no advantage. Thus, people of all ages, genders, and physical conditions can enjoy and benefit from Kendo together. It is often observed that Kendoka become stronger as they age, and gain experience. Some of the most formidable Kendoka in the world are over the age of 60.
With students pursuing ranks and competing, how can the goal of self-improvement be kept from getting lost?
The pursuit of ranks and the participation in competitive matches are key elements to development of the human character via the medium of Kendo. In the west, we probably put too much emphasis on the perceived 'status' granted by high ranks. But in Japan, 'what rank are you?' is a seldom asked question. Respect and status are granted generally by age and experience, rather than by ranks.
Competition is much the same. The goal of competition is, of course, victory – but on a deeper level, this victory is not necessarily victory over the opponent, but rather victory over the self.
What are your goals for Kendo and for yourself?
I'd like to see Kendo practiced more internationally. The concept of Kendo is to train and improve the human character through the study of the principles of the Japanese sword – and by extension Japanese culture. It's something that can benefit all people, from all walks of life. I'd like to see Kendo become something that brings benefit to as many people as possible in this way.
For me, I hope to be able to continue my lifelong pursuit of betterment of my own understanding of the teachings of Kendo, as well as my own physical ability, so that I may provide others with a good example.
Check out Andy on YouTube at The Kendo Show.
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